Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
Of all the sharp scenes in "Blindspotting," and there are plenty, one in particular gathers up every grudge, blind spot and frustration packed inside the moving company coworkers played by Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal.
On his last night of parole, ex-con Collin (Diggs), a biracial Oakland resident who has recently witnessed a fatal police shooting, arrives at an overwhelmingly white party. He's accompanied by the rowdy powder keg Miles (Casal), a white-Latino who has grown up on black streets, and in black culture, and sports a blinding grill as a badge of honor.
At this point in the story, Collin can't risk his freedom. He knows full well -- we learn throughout "Blindspotting" just how well -- his friend Miles may be loyal and true, but he's also violently impulsive and reckless as hell.
The party's at the sleek townhouse owned by a young tech-entrepreneur hotshot who works for the online music service Pandora. The crowd's white, moneyed bohemians, symbol of the new Oakland, which Money magazine (in 2016) ranked the fourth-priciest rental market in the nation, ahead of D.C., Chicago and other cities. The formerly affordable neighborhood has gentrified to the point of, well, this party and these people. Miles wears a T-shirt that says KILL A HIPSTER -- SAVE YOUR HOOD. These are not his people. The scene is witheringly funny and then scarily confrontational, back and forth, back and forth.
That's "Blindspotting" all over: an exuberant, brightly colored, zigzagging portrait of a city, an uneasy transformation and a friendship. Casal and Diggs, who've known each other since high school, wrote the script for themselves. It takes about 10 seconds, if that, for the movie to establish their rapport on screen.
This month, we're being treated to two very differently styled Sundance Film Festival hits telling Oakland stories, largely filmed there, taking on issues of race, class and cultural identity, directed by two different and highly skillful first-time feature filmmakers. Boots Riley's "Sorry to Bother You" (already in theaters, and expanding) is the wilder and more surreally creative and form-busting of the two.
But "Blindspotting," directed with propulsive energy by Carlos Lopez Estrada, stakes out its own corner of the Bay Area, allowing its stars, both spoken-word maestros, to relish the banter. In a few instances the material opens up to include spoken verse. Not everything in the movie works; as different as it is from "Sorry to Bother You," both pictures have a little trouble going where they go in the final 20 minutes or so. But I've seen both films twice, happily. That's saying something, because the movies are saying something about how we live today.
We don't learn the details of Collin's incarceration until midway through "Blindspotting." The timeline of the script tick-tocks its way through the last three days of his parole. His ex-lover Val (Janina Gavankar) works the front desk at the moving company. Miles, meantime, has a wife, Ashley (played by Jasmine Cephas Jones, an alum of the musical "Hamilton," as is Tony Award winner Diggs), and a young son. Early on, Miles buys a handgun for "protection." The gun winds up, temporarily, in the worst possible hands. How Estrada, Casal, Diggs and Jones manage this dramatic scene represents a sudden, wholly effective tonal shift, capturing how "Blindspotting" navigates its own way through three eventful days.
Similarly, when Collin is driving the moving truck alone, at night, he comes to a red light intersection. For a tense few seconds he debates whether or not to break the law, run the red and risk an encounter with the police. The nearest officer, it turns out, is otherwise engaged. This chilling sequence carries deliberate and inevitable echoes of the 2009 Bay Area Rapid Transit officer killing of Oscar Grant, which "Black Panther" director Ryan Coogler brought to the screen as "Fruitvale Station."
The themes of "Blindspotting" are impressively, sometimes chaotically multilayered, considering it runs a tight hour and a half minus credits. Gentrification; racial animus; the stress fractures underneath a time-tested friendship; all come into play. The film's stance toward Miles, I think, is forgiving to a fault; the epilogue makes nice to a degree that I'm not sure I buy. En route, though, the details and flourishes keep coming, and garner a seriously shrewd variety of laughs. It honestly shouldn't be all that funny to hear Casal holler, at no one in particular, "We GET it, breh -- your CAR has an ALARM!!" Yet it is. As written and acted, the wary reunion of childhood friends Collin and Val is treated seriously, as is the stain and the shadow of violence.
With his cinematographer Robby Baumgartner (who shot "The Guest" and served as chief lighting tech on "There Will Be Blood"), director Estrada saturates his images to the point of un-realism, but the compositions feel carefully considered and vibrantly on point. I'm a little concerned that audiences being what they are (easily confused, endlessly tempted to NOT go out to the movies), folks will make time enough to see either "Blindspotting" or "Sorry to Bother You" but not both. That would be foolish.
MPAA rating: R (for language throughout, some brutal violence, sexual references and drug use).
Running time: 1:35